Today Is Blasphemy Day and Thank God For That

Founded by the secular Center For Inquiry in 2009, Blasphemy Day is observed every September 30 in order to promote the idea that religion should be subjected to same kinds of analysis and critique that other beliefs are. While it’s generally acceptable to engage in rhetorical free-for-alls about political issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and the top marginal tax rate, it’s often considered taboo or at least poor form to approach religion in the same way.

This is because deep down most people know that religion is fundamentally defenseless. Not only does it have no evidence, it doesn’t even pretend to have any. The Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other holy texts are all revealed wisdom from god(s) as far as their respective followers are concerned. God says it, and the believer believes it. That’s how religion works. It has never relied on fact to perpetuate itself. Rather, it depends primarily on tradition and intimidation, and one way to intimidate people is through blasphemy laws.

According to Pew Research Center, dozens of countries around the world have blasphemy laws, the violation of which can incur everything from a fine to the death penalty to vigilante murder.

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Blasphemy laws are most prevalent and most harsh in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. They occur most frequently in Muslim-majority countries. Interestingly, neither the Quran nor the hadith prescribe any punishments for blasphemy, but this has not prevented some scholars and clerics from deeming it a grave offense, often worthy of death. On the other hand, the Bible is quite concerned with blasphemy, and even advocates stoning for those who speak irreverently of god and the divine. However, Christian-majority countries have by and large phased out draconian laws and punishments for this offense.

In addition to tradition and intimidation, religion also depends on something else for its survival: reverence from people outside the faith. As secular as Western society is relative to other parts of the world, there is an awful and dangerous tendency to defer to the sensitivities of people of faith. The September 30 observance of Blasphemy Day is not random, but was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the publication of several “blasphemous” cartoons of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, in a Danish newspaper in 2005. As a result of their publication, violence broke out across the globe. In Damascus, rioters set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in response. The Danish embassy in Beirut was also set ablaze. In Benghazi, the Italian consulate was torched as well. In Nigeria, 11 churches were burned and 16 people were killed.

The reaction to the reaction was deplorable. Pope Benedict XVI condemned the violence, but also the cartoons, as if the whole business came down to bad behavior on both sides. More incredibly, a U.S. State Department spokesman denounced the cartoons, saying, “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” For their part, several major U.S. news outlets chose not to show the cartoons in question.

Later on, South Park, too, came under intense scrutiny when creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone planned to depict Muhammad in a 2006 episode, after already having done so in 2001. Eventually, it was censored, and Muhammad was placed inside a bear suit (though Muhammad actually turned out to be Santa Claus).

These rows were reminiscent of the criticism of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s. So offensive was that book to religious sensitivities, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s death — a fatwa which has not been fulfilled, though to this day Rushdie takes extra precautions when moving about. While the diktat from an extremist like Khomeini was hardly surprising, the condemnation from literary figures such as Roald Dahl and John le Carré was more unexpected. Former president Jimmy Carter even got in on the act, calling the book “an insult” to Muslims.

Implicit in these condemnations is a disturbing qualification of free speech, which is to say human rights. The way stop this puerile and violent nonsense is not to assent to the demands of the offended, but to ignore them. There is no such thing as the right to not be offended, which is why we need to stop acting like there is. It’s time that the religiously sensitive become desensitized and recall that age-old adage: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but blasphemy couldn’t possibly hurt me.


Pennsylvania teenager faces jail time for “desecrating a venerated object”

Blasphemy in the U.S.???

Reader jsp called my attention to what seems a gross inequity in punishment, something that shouldn’t be happening in America. A teenager photographed himself in a compromising position with the statue of Jesus on a church lawn.  I’ve seen dozens of such pictures, and not just with Jesus, but it was the Jesus bit that got him in trouble. First, the picture and then the story, both from KRON 4 News in San Francisco:

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EVERETT, Pennsylvania (KRON) — A Pennsylvania teenager is facing criminal charges after posting pictures to Facebook of him simulating a sex act with a statue of Jesus.

The young man posted that he took the pictures in late July at the statue of a kneeling Jesus in front of the “Love in the Name of Christ” Christian organization in his hometown of Everett.

The criminal charge, which will be heard in family court, consists of “Desecration of a Venerated Object.”

Pennsylvania law defines desecration as “Defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.”

The teen, whose name has not been released, could face up to two years in a juvenile jail if convicted.

For crying out loud, what is that law doing on the books? “Venerated object?”, really? Let’s see them try to convict somebody for burning a Bible or the Qur’an under that law. While what the kid is doing doesn’t really qualify as “free speech,” the most it could be is trespassing, and he should just have been let off with a warning. Now he’s going to court and could go to jail (I predict he won’t).

But that law is unconstitutional. For instance, I suppose I could say that I venerate Hitchens’s book God is Not Great.  If somebody damages it, could I take them to court? If I couldn’t because “venerated objects” apply only to religious objects, then that’s a violation of the Constitution.

This is America, not Saudi Arabia. Religion gets no pass. There is no damage here, and maybe a bit of trespassing, but desecration? Give me a break.

Because the piece was published in San Francisco, you can guess what the comments are like. Here are two:

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9/11 Conspiracy Theories: Why Do People Believe In September 11 Conspiracies?

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A deeper look into why people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Reuters

Why do people believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories? It’s a simple question to ask, but not necessarily an easy one to answer. Some people might scoff at those who believe in the outlandish theories, but experts said there are several underlying causes why conspiracy theorists are compelled to go against official reports from the government and mainstream media. For one, people don’t want to trust the government. The rise of the Internet has also made it easier than ever to spread alternative suspicions about what “really” happened. What’s more, once someone is convinced a conspiracy is truth, it’s very difficult to change their mind.

There are dozens of conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some speculate inside traders knew about the attack beforehand. There are people who are convinced that bombs, not airliners, destroyed the Twin Towers. One of the more popular theories states that the U.S. government, not al Qaeda, was behind the attacks.

When people were asked in the 1950s if they could trust the government to do what is right, 75 percent of people said they did, said Robert Alan Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and the author of “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America.” But there has been a dramatic change since then because of events like the Vietnam War, the Watergate wiretapping scandal and President Bill Clinton’s intern romance. Now, only a small minority of Americans trust the government to do what is right, Goldberg said.

Part of the reason people turn to conspiracy theories has to do with their lack of trust in the government, conspiracy theory expert Tim Melley, an English professor at Miami University in Ohio, said. People are aware of secretive government programs like the CIA and National Security Agency, but most of that knowledge comes from film and fantasy. “It’s often illegal to report on these kinds of activities,” Melley said. “The public is in this strange fantasy world where they know about clandestine activity, but we don’t know about it in the way we know about other things. It’s creates a suspicion about the government.”

There’s been a blur between what is fact and fiction because of Americans’ fascination with media, Goldberg said. “The greatest historians, if you will, are filmmakers,” he said. “When the film blends with the history, the film becomes history.”

The Internet has also helped conspiracy theories win over new followers. “It’s easier to spread untruths,” said Scott Bigelow, a public communication specialist at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

It doesn’t help that people often turn to the Internet for information that backs up their personal views, Goldberg said. “You go on to the internet to seek conformation,” he said. “Your views are amplified and validated.”

A conspiracy theory can help restore order after a seemingly senseless act occurs, said Kathleen Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California Davis. “The theories serve the psychological purpose of helping people to believe that there is order in the universe and that someone is in charge,” she said.

In the end, it’s just too hard to stop believing, Goldberg said.

“They look for confirming information or they interpret information in a confirming way,” he said. “They lose the ability to find the facts that might trip it up and either disguise them, ignore them or argue those facts are planted. Once you believe in a conspiracy theory, the condition is hard to break.”

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Christian Church Leader Jerald Hill Suspected Of Attempted Dog Sex

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Jerald Hill, 56, is accused of attempting to arrange sex with a dog
Jerald Hill, 56, is accused of attempting to arrange sex with a dog

A church leader in Roach, Missouri, is out of a job after being arrested for allegedly trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a dog.

Jerald Hill, 56, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of attempted unlawful sex with an animal and attempted animal abuse.

Authorities began investigating Hill after the Boone County Sheriff’s Department Cyber Crimes Task Force got a tip about a Craigslist post by a man looking for two types of animals for sex.

One of the chosen animals was a dog, but investigators declined to mention the other type of animal, the Columbia Tribune reports.

An undercover detective contacted Hill by email and offered a dog for sex. The two then arranged a meeting in Columbia. When Hill arrived, he was arrested without incident, according to CBS St. Louis.

Hill was released after paying $1,000 bail.

The allegations have had a negative effect on Hill’s job as the CEO of the Windermere Baptist Conference Center.

A day after Hill’s arrest, church leaders released a statement saying that the organization is “concerned for the well-being of Jerry,” but will meet next week to start “the process of looking for a new president and CEO,” according to APBnews.com.


Study: Greatest Terrorism Threat In America Not Al Qaeda, It’s Right-Wing Sovereign Citizens

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Radical right-wing groups who refuse to recognize the authority of the federal government, like those who flocked to Bundy Ranch and now parade around the U.S.-Mexico border, represent the clearest threat to their communities, even more so than Islamic terrorists or white supremacist groups.

That’s the takeaway from a new landmark study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START). The group surveyed hundreds of law enforcement officials and over 170 agencies across the United States in an effort to understand how the people tasked with stopping terrorism view the threats on the ground.

What the team discovered was that the notion of Islamic extremists plotting to blow buildings was far less likely than homegrown so-called “Sovereign Citizens” who stockpile weapons and hold a seething resentment towards the federal government. Consequently, 86 percent of those interviewed agreed that this movement posed a “serious terrorist threat,” the highest of any group inquired about.

Compare that to just 8 years earlier in a similar questionnaire found that nearly every agency was still thinking about Islamic extremism.

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What’s changed in the time between 2007 and now? The most obvious thing is the nation got its first African American president with the election of Barack Obama. Fueled by racism, conservative fear mongering and the threats of “socialism,” the sovereign citizen movement has seen its membership explode in the last few years. It’s no coincident that two of the biggest sovereign citizen groups The Three Percenters and The Oath keepers were both founded around the time Obama was first elected.

As the Anti-Defamation League explains:

Formed in March 2009 and led by Stewart Rhodes, a Nevada lawyer, the Oath Keepers encourage members of the military and law enforcement to pledge not to follow certain hypothetical “orders” from the federal government. These “orders,” including one “to put American citizens in detention camps,” and another “to disarm the American people,” echo longstanding conspiracy theories embraced by anti-government extremists, who claim that the U.S. government is creating a police state. The Oath Keepers try to appeal to military and law enforcement personnel by reminding them that they swore an oath to defend the Constitution “from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and suggesting that now is the time to live up to that oath by resisting an allegedly tyrannical government.

The Three Percenters, formed in late 2008, are a loosely organized movement centered around an obscure, and not particularly accurate, Revolutionary War “statistic” that claimed that only 3% of the American population during the Revolutionary War participated as combatants in the war.  The group asserts that they are a modern counterpart to that mythical 3% of American Revolutionary-era patriots and also represent the three percent of the population of American gun owners “who will not disarm.”

The idea that Obama (who many view as a black, Islamic foreigner) is coming to take their guns and their rights resonates with a certain type of paranoid person. Situations like Cliven Bundy’s cattle ranch standoff only reinforce their sense that it’s them against the government. It’s no surprise then that law enforcement officers are extremely worried about what kind of violent, drastic plans these people are cooking up to fight their perceived oppression.

This isn’t just an intellectual exercise, either. In June, a husband and wife killed three people in a shooting rampage based in part around the idea that they were kicking off an anti-government “revolution.”

Forbes gives a chilling account of their final moments:

On June 8, 2014, Jerad Dwain Miller, 31, and his wife Amanda Woodruff Miller, 22, entered a Las Vegas pizzeria and without any provocation or warning, shot and killed two police officers sitting in a booth eating lunch.  The pair dragged the officers to the floor, took their weapons and ammunition, and draped a yellow flag over one of the bodies.  They placed a swastika-stamped manifesto on top of the flag, and pinned a note on the other officer’s body that read, “This is the start of the revolution.”

The couple continued their spree in a nearby Wal-Mart.  Jerad wore military-style clothing and body armor and he yelled to the Wal-Mart shoppers, “Tell the police the revolution has begun.”  To emphasize his announcement, he fired a round into the ceiling, while Amanda shot and killed a brave bystander who tried to stop them.  They engaged the police in a shootout for roughly fifteen minutes while hiding in a shopping aisle in the back of the store.  Amanda aimed her weapon at her husband, but he had already been hit by a bullet from a police rifle, so she turned the gun on herself and pulled the trigger while the police watched the couple through a security camera.

Just weeks before, the two had been seen at Bundy’s ranch parading around the premises with weapons daring police officers to try to take them.

It’s examples like that which may explain why sovereign citizens are one of the few potential terror groups that didn’t see a decline in their perceived threat. As their numbers swell and their anger rises, the odds of a major act of terror occurring would seem to rise.


Why Jesus Would Have Hated Most Modern Day Religion

Jesus would not be a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity.

The following is an excerpt from Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace by Frank Schaeffer. Click here to buy a copy. 

A leper came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” If Jesus had been a good religious Jew, he would have said, “Be healed,” and just walked away. Instead, he stretched out his hand and touched the leper, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean,” even though he was breaking the specific rules of Leviticus. Two chapters teach that anyone touching a person with leprosy is contaminated.

Jesus certainly was not a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity that’s used as a trade-marked product to sell religion. Jesus didn’t take the Jewish scriptures at face value. In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn’t even “saved,” according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn’t. He undercut the scriptures.

The stories about Jesus that survived the bigots, opportunists and delusional fanatics who wrote the New Testament contain powerful and enlightened truths that would someday prove the undoing of the Church built in his name. Like a futurist vindicated by events as yet undreamed, Jesus’ message of love was far more powerful than the magical thinking of the writers of the book he’s trapped in. In Jesus’ day the institutions of religion, state, misogyny and myth were so deeply ingrained that the ultimate dangerousness of his life example could not be imagined. For example his feminism, probably viewed as an eccentricity in his day, would prove transformational.

Jesus believed in God rather than in a book about God. The message of Jesus’ life is an intervention in and an acceleration of the evolution of empathy. Consider this story from the book of Matthew: “A woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’ Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.”

Jesus recognized a bleeding woman touching him as a sign of her faith. By complimenting rather than rebuking her, Jesus ignored another of his scripture’s rules: “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time her [period], or if she has a discharge beyond the time, all the days of her discharge she shall continue in uncleanness… Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as [unclean]… Everything on which she sits shall be unclean … Whoever touches these things shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15:25).

Jesus’ un-first-century antics went beyond coddling lepers and welcoming the touch of a bleeding woman. He held a dead girl’s hand, violating explicit commands: “He shall not go in to any dead bodies nor make himself unclean, even for his father or for his mother” (Leviticus 21:11) and “Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him” (Numbers 19:13).

As an ultimate fuck you to rule-keeping scripture zealots everywhere, Jesus hung out with whores. Embracing whores was a double rebuke to the Jewish scripture-thumpers because it put Jesus on the side of the pagan, prostitute-condoning Roman occupiers and made him a traitor in the culture wars of the day. Yet, the anointing of Jesus by a prostitute is one of the few events reported in all four gospels. As Jesus blessed and defended her, Matthew’s gospel says the disciples “were indignant” while Luke describes the woman who did the anointing as “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life,” which is a coded phrase for a filthy hooker who is certainly not one of us.

Jesus’ embrace of a woman from an enemy tribe in a culture where tribal belonging was paramount distressed both his followers and enemies. His attitude to the “other” was as incomprehensible as if he’d blurted “E=mc2 is the equation of mass–energy equivalence.” The Samaritan woman at the well knew that his actions were shocking. When Jesus stopped to talk to her, she said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9).

Jesus responded by attacking the preeminence of religion and group identity, offering an entirely new way of looking at spirituality by emphasizing basic human dignity above nation, state, gender or religion:

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:19–24).

Jesus rejects tribalism, literalism, group identity, specific religions, and gatekeepers as well as his Jewish identity. The phrase “Salvation is from the Jews” is paradoxically a reference to his liberating departure from tribal identity in favor of common humanity.

What is the implication of Jesus-centric non-theological, non-dogmatic salvation? It’s the abolishing of exclusion of the other as “unsaved.”

What about God? Jesus says that God doesn’t want (or maybe no longer wants) worship via exclusionary religion, sacrifice or membership in the correct tribe, sect or nation. No, Jesus says, the Father wants “true worshipers [who] will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”

In other words Jesus decouples the credulous attachment to a tribal geography and religion-based identity. Jesus declares we’re all one family. Goodbye, Abrahamic covenant, Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome and Constantinople. Au revoir, holy places, River Ganges, passports, borders, empires, Lourdes, clan, tribe, Hellenism, Russian imperial ambition and American exceptionalism. No more chants of “USA! USA!” for, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” According to Jesus, there never was and never will be a “greatest country on earth,” or a “city set on a hill” or a “chosen people.”


Israelis gathered on a hilltop outside the town of Sderot on Monday to watch the bombardment of Gaza. Credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Open Source

Last Wednesday night, as he stood on a hilltop outside the Israeli town of Sderot and watched the bombardment of Gaza on the plain below, a Danish newspaper reporter snapped an iPhone photo of about a dozen locals who cheered on their military from plastic chairs while eating popcorn.

Allan Sorensen, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Denmark’s Kristeligt Dagblad, then uploaded the image to Twitter with a sardonic caption that described the macabre scene as “Sderot cinema.”

The image of the Israeli spectators was taken after 9 p.m. local time on Wednesday, the reporter said, about the same time that what was intended to be a “precision strike” from Israel’s military killed at least eight of their Palestinian neighbors, seated in similar plastic chairs at a beachside cafe in Gaza, waiting to watch the World Cup semifinal between Argentina and the Netherlands.

As his image reverberated around the social network, where it was shared more than 10,000 times, the reporter was surprised by the response. It was, he said in a telephone interview from Israel, “nothing new.” Similar scenes, of Israeli spectators gathered on the high ground above Gaza to view the destruction below, were documented in a Times of London article and a video report from Denmark’s TV2 during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

 
A Danish television news report from January, 2009 showed Israelis watching the bombing of Gaza from a nearby hill. TV2 Denmark, via YouTube

Explaining that he has also previously witnessed Palestinians cheering news of bombings that killed Israelis, Mr. Sorensen said that in a war, “this is what happens.” Civilians and fighters on both sides, he said, “go through a process of dehumanizing the enemy.”

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Israelis sitting on a hilltop outside Sderot watched a smoke plume rise over Gaza on Wednesday following an airstrike. Credit Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Despite the willingness of some residents to stand in the open watching the war unfold, Sderot is well within range of rockets launched by Islamist militants in Gaza and has been hit in recent days.

When he was a candidate for the American presidency in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama visited the town and saluted “the brave citizens” of Sderot while standing in front of a collection of spent rockets that had been fired at them from Gaza. He was also presented with an “I Love Sderot” T-shirt that channeled the dark humor of the residents, with the image of a heart on its front pierced by a rocket.

 
Video of Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Sderot, Israel in 2008, posted online by his campaign. BarackObamadotcom, via YouTube

While some partisans of Israel on Twitter accused the Danish reporter of fabrication, the same scene, captured in photographs by several other journalists in recent days, was also witnessed by Mr. Sorensen’s colleague Nikolaj Krak, who wrote: “The hill has been transformed into something that most closely resembles the front row of a reality war theater. It offers a direct view of the densely populated Gaza Strip. People have dragged camping chairs and sofas to the top of the hill. Several sit with crackling bags of popcorn, while others smoke hookahs and talk cheerfully.”

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Israelis watched the bombing of Gaza on Saturday night from a couch dragged to a hill overlooking the Palestinian territory. Credit Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When the bombs find their targets, Mr. Krak reported, “cheers break out on the hill, followed by solid applause.”

Mr. Sorensen, who stressed that he has “a complete understanding of what the people of Sderot have been going through for 14 years,” attributed the particularly vitriolic response to his Twitter report to the climate in Israel since three young religious students were kidnapped and murdered in the occupied West Bank last month. The journalist called the “extreme incitement to violence from very right-wing Israeli groups unprecedented” in the many years he has been reporting from the region.

View image on Twitter

RIGHT NOW: Jewish fascists rally in downtown Jerusalem, chanting “Death to Arabs!”, “Traitors!” & “Leftists to Gaza!”

An Israeli blogger, David Sheen, reported that a far-right rally in Jerusalem on Monday was marked by calls to kill Arabs and send Jews opposed to the bombardment to Gaza.